Gulf Islands National Park – the need to complete the job

One of the wonderful things about moving to this area is that I can live in and around a national park for which I have been an advocate for so long. Years ago, I was fortunate to play a key role in government in the establishment of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve in Haida Gwaii, as well as working on completion of Pacific Rim National Park.

As Executive Director of Sierra Club of Canada, I continued to be engaged in many British Columbia conservation campaigns, from Clayoquot Sound to Great Bear Rainforest. Our yearly progress reports, the ‘Rio Report Card,’ allowed me to track and write about the struggle to meet Canada’s international commitments to protect threatened ecosystems.

For at least the last dozen years or so, the work to create the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve has been so very encouraging. Creating a national park in the southern regions of Canada is the most uphill of struggles. Lands are already committed and tied up in different private ownership. Resource allocations have been made. Yet, the threats to habitat are most severe. Creating a national park in the Gulf Islands has presented more than its fair share of challenges.

Our area is within the Garry oak ecosystem, with more endangered species than nearly anywhere else in Canada. In the area, less than 5% of the habitat remains in anything like a natural state. The Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team has been established out of a community-based concern for the recovery of these ecosystems and is able to work within Species at Risk Act provisions to develop policies and programmes to keep the over one hundred endangered species on our area from becoming extinct.

The Garry Oak ecosystem is about far more than the Garry Oak. Species associated with this ecosystem include everything from the Marbled Murrelet to the Golden Paintbrush to Orca whales. And all of those species face threats to their survival. One key component of keeping these species from slipping over the brink to extinction is the existence of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.

Despite the fact that we see Parks Canada facilities scattered through the Islands and see the park described and mapped while we travel on the ferries, the park is still not formally established under the Canada National Parks Act. Although it was announced as established in 2003, a number of legal steps are still incomplete. The key factor has been to remove all encumbrances on a large number of separate properties. Much great work has been done. Through a non-coercive process, key lands have been drawn into the park. Much of this is due to the cooperation of the provincial government. The federal government has been able to buy lands to expand the reach of national park status and protection. All told, the park protects about 35 square kilometres of precious habitat.

Meanwhile, some critical issues need to be resolved with First Nations. The designation ‘reserve’ connotes that the establishment of the park does not extinguish aboriginal title. Nevertheless, the proper recognition of First Nations’ traditional use and occupation requires a very high order of meaningful consultation—especially in this case where nineteen First Nations exert some level of claim.

Marine Component

The largest job requiring some new energy and concerted political will is to link all the land-based parts of the park within a marine park. That process has been moving along (or not moving at all) on a parallel track. The creation of a complete network in all 29 marine regions of Canada takes place through the National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) process. It is, in every region of Canada, woefully behind schedule.

The proposal for the Gulf Islands area is called the Southern Strait of Georgia NMCA and it is currently stuck in what may be the world’s longest feasibility study. The memorandum of understanding between the British Columbia government and the federal government in 2003 launched this process. If you check the website for Parks Canada, you will see the feasibility study is described as underway and likely to take several years. The end point is still identified as ‘sometime in late 2008.’

The beauty of a marine park component linking the scattered bits of protection on Saturna, Mayne, Pender and smaller unpopulated islands is that it would protect key habitat. The levels of protection by law are not particularly onerous. All that is legally forbidden would be off-shore mineral exploration and development. In other words, it does not interrupt the ferries, commercial vessels, nor does it automatically create ‘no take’ fishery zones.

What it would do would be to shift consciousness about the richness of our marine biodiversity. That shift in awareness is being advanced by the newly opened Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre in Sidney. It offers a brilliant array of exhibits to inform and inspire. (If you have not yet visited, make a point of doing so next time you are in the area. About ten minutes from Swartz Bay, next door to the Pier Hotel in Sidney, it is a must, especially if you can bring along children or grandchildren.) Awareness is also being advanced by the move to rename our offshore areas the ‘Salish Sea,’ providing a unity to our mental map and imagining of our home territory. Let’s move to have our marine park created soon. Why not re-name it the Salish Sea NMCA?

It is time for residents of the Saanich-Gulf Islands to start asking some pointed questions. When will we see real progress on the marine component of the Gulf Islands national park reserve? What can we do to help?

Elizabeth E. May is leader of the Green Party of Canada, candidate in Saanich–Gulf Islands and Officer of the Order of Canada.